Founder Stories are conversations with people that have been through YC.
Discussed: Skills Learned During Her MBA; Going From a Bank to a Startup; Starting AptDeco; SF<>NYC During YC; Reham’s Favorite Podcasts.
Craig: What does AptDeco do?
Reham: AptDeco is a marketplace for buying and selling furniture. We are currently in New York City and Washington D.C. We’re a vertically integrated company so we handle all the logistics ourselves as well.
Craig: And you were which batch?
Reham: We were winter ’14. Wow, it’s been a while.
Craig: [Laughter] And what did you do before YC?
Reham: I was an engineer at Goldman Sachs for six years. So anything from creating applications to eventually managing a team of engineers. I eventually left Goldman, went to business school, and then I started AptDeco after business school.
Craig: So I have several questions related to that because a lot of our readers are where you were–in finance or getting an MBA. To start, would you recommend people get an MBA?
Reham: I think if you are looking to switch careers, it’s very helpful. For someone who came from engineering in the financial industry, I didn’t have a background in accounting, finance, and marketing. For me, learning all that was super, super helpful.
Also just having that network of people. Being close to so many different people who have done so many different things is great. If you’re thinking about starting a company, you get a lot of ideas and confidence from other people. I hadn’t started anything before so I think I used to be intimidated but then I met people who had started their own thing and I’m like, “Wait a minute. Who are these people? I think I’m as smart as them and they’re doing it. I can do it, too.”
Craig: Were there other tangible learnings that you could point to? Maybe resources people could check out online?
Reham: For me, financial modeling is definitely the thing that I took away from my MBA program. I use it now for forecasting, for projections for our company, everything. That was definitely very tangible, and I use that every day here.
Craig: Cool. What about your experience at Goldman, what made you decide to switch to get an MBA while you were managing engineers?
Reham: I was looking to do a career switch. At the time, when I was at Goldman, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay within the tech world, to be honest. I was working at Goldman where technology was not the core business function and I felt I wanted to be part of the core business function. At the time, I’m like, “Well, that means I need to go get an MBA, and, you know, maybe I wanna work in consumer or something else.”
What was interesting is once I joined the MBA class, a lot of people were asking me about being an engineer and how most of the business people I knew wanted to get into tech and I was trying to get out of tech. I’m like, “Wait a minute.”
Craig: [Laughter] Can I sell you my job?
Reham: Yeah, exactly. So then I started looking into, potentially being part of a tech company since I have the tech background, but a company where the core function is technology itself, which makes a difference.
Craig: And so how did you come upon the idea for AptDeco?
Reham: When I was finishing business school, I started selling my furniture before moving back to New York to actually join another company. It sucked. And the class at Wharton is pretty big. It’s 800 people. So everyone was trying to sell their furniture at the same time. Many of my friends were complaining about how painful it was. It was sort of an idea in the back of my mind at the time. I started dabbling with it during my break after business school before I started my new job. I just put together a small prototype and got a sale on the first day and I’m like, “Oh, wait, this actually works,” so I ended up doing that instead.
Craig: [Laughter] Pretty straightforward. And was there a point at which you felt resistance around committing or did you just know that you wanted to commit and go for it?
Reham: No, I felt a lot of resistance from myself. It’s a big decision, right? There was a job that was going to pay me a whole lot of money and there are a lot of unknowns about, “Hey, does this make sense? Is it niche market?” Plus all the sacrifices that you have to make. So it took me a while to make that decision. That’s why I was sort of dabbling with it for a while.
And for a whole other reason, I had to defer my start date for the other company I was supposed to join. That gave me extra time to sort of just test it out. And then, when I got my first sale, that’s when I actually committed. It felt like, “Wow, I just launched this thing and someone randomly in the world of the internet found me and decided to buy something. Okay, this seems like something that’s realistic.” So then I actually made the decision to not take that job.
Craig: And how much was the first sale, because, to me, even that wouldn’t be enough for a lot of people.
Reham: It was like $100.
Craig: That’s awesome. Okay, so what made you guys decide to apply to YC?
Reham: At the time I was working on it mostly on my own. My co-founder [Kalam Dennis] was working full-time at his job and working on AptDeco part-time. We were growing fast, but, you know, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was starting a company for the first time. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be focusing on–I was mostly figuring out how to get users. Then I heard from some friends, like, “Hey, you know, you should apply to YC.” And you know, in New York, YC isn’t as big of a thing unless you’re into startups. At that time, most people would not know what YC was, and I was one of those people.
So I looked into it and I’m like, “Well, it doesn’t hurt.” I wanted to be as focused and committed to building the company, and I thought that would be the best way to do that. Having all these people in the same place who have done this before to learn from is kind of like going back to business school all over again. So once we got in it was a no-brainer.
Craig: Once you got in, how was the reality of YC different than the perception you had of it before?
Reham: That’s a great question. So my perception was it’s very structured. It would be super-structured where, the partners would be making sure that you do what you’re supposed to do, almost like school. The reality is you make it your own. So if you want to set up meetings with the partners, go ahead. If you want to take advantage of different partners, go ahead. If you want show up to dinners, go ahead. Nobody’s going to force you to do anything.
It’s really on you to take advantage of all the resources there. For example, when we went into partner meetings, we made sure we had an agenda–questions that we had in advance that we wanted to get addressed. We made it very structured for ourselves, which became very, very helpful in the long run.
Craig: What were the most valuable lessons you learned in YC?
Reham: I mean, growing 10% a week. The cliché answer, I guess. For me and my co-founder, Kalam, coming from corporate backgrounds, we knew how to take something from 50 million to 100 million–sort of that larger scale growth versus taking something from $100 to $1,000. The things and the tools you need are very different so I was always asking about scaling. YC was all about, “Don’t worry about scaling. Just do the things that are unscalable and try to get as many customers in the door as possible and talk to these people.” Those lessons are unbelievable and I tell them to all my friends who are starting companies now.
Craig: If you were to do YC again, would you give yourself any advice to get the absolute most out of it?
Reham: I’d spend more time with the batchmates. I just felt clueless the whole time, and it’s okay that you feel clueless because most of the time, they feel the same way and you’re not alone. So really take advantage of the network and talk to your batchmates.
During the batch we were flying back and forth between New York and San Francisco every week. We didn’t stay in San Francisco so we couldn’t really connect with, the rest of the batch because we were only there Tuesday dinners, and that’s it. So we made it harder to make those connections, but I’m sure there would have been different ways for us to do that had we made it our priority.
Craig: Good note. How did traveling back and forth work?
Reham: Oh my gosh. I think it was either PG or PB, one of the two. Our first meeting, they were like, “What are you gonna do in San Francisco? You need to go to New York City.” We’re like, “Oh, okay, but we subletted our place so we don’t have a place to stay in New York City.” And they said, “You guys need to be in New York, with your customers, and not in San Francisco.” And we actually rented a place in Mountain View. So we would spend one day in our place in Mountain View and then crash on a friend’s couches for the rest of the week in New York City.
Craig: [Laughter] Wow, well done.
Reham: Gotta do what you gotta do, right?
Craig: Definitely. That’s great. So I have a couple female founder questions that you don’t have to answer if you don’t feel like it.
Reham: I’ll answer them.
Craig: Ok. Did you feel there was a difference being a female founder at YC?
Reham: For me, no. But I’ll preface this by saying that as an engineer, I’m used to being one of the only women in the room so it’s not any different than being in college. Is that response common?
Craig: Yeah, that’s actually the most common response from female founder engineers. I haven’t spoken to every founder but seemingly, people who are not on the technical side feel the difference more.
Reham: Exactly, and I’ll tell you this. When I was in business school, I think our class was 45% females. That was weird for me because I wasn’t used to it, which was weird and refreshing in a way. And actually, I made a lot of friends, girl friends, for the first time. My entire career, I’ve just been around men most of my time. So it was really refreshing. But YC is just like, any college or university if you’re in engineering and such.
Craig: Do you have thoughts as to how the industry could be more welcoming for female founders?
Reham: be open to different experiences and backgrounds. I think that’s the main thing.
Even my own experience in meetings, you know, as a minority women tech engineer, I get questions that my batchmates did not get in investor meetings. And I think just having an open mind is important. Whether it’s a partnership with a company or an investor, you just have to have an open mind that people can come from different backgrounds and can achieve whatever someone who looks like you can.
Craig: Cool, that’s a great answer. Okay, last question. What are your favorite books?
Reham: I don’t even read books anymore. It’s sad. I used to love reading books, but I don’t even read books anymore. I listen to a lot of podcasts.
Craig: That’s perfectly acceptable. What are your favorite podcasts?
Craig: I haven’t listened to it, but I’ve heard of it, yeah. There’s a popular one going around YC right now that you might be into–Missing Richard Simmons.
Reham: Oh, I’ll check it out. I’m always shopping for new podcasts.
Postscript – Reham listened to Missing Richard Simmons and liked it. 🙂